It was big enough for a grizzly but not the right shape. Too wide for a deer and not well enough defined to be a cougar. There was no frosting on the mud – whatever had made the tracks was close. Travis blew into his hands and shouldered his shotgun. Only a pale grey glow was left lingering above the treeline, the remnant of a sun long-set. He began to trudge up the forest trail again, breath clouding over his shoulder in the cold air.
The birds had been the first sign that something wasn’t right in the woods. It was a rare morning that Travis wasn’t wakened at dawn by squawking on top of the leaking roof or clattering around the tin chimney of his tumbledown hunting cabin. That morning there had been nothing. Not a tweet. Then there had been the game, or more accurately the lack of it. No deer, no beaver, no caribou, no elk. The woods had been silent.
Until this evening, that is, when Travis had chanced upon an old woodsman’s trail. Amidst the sprouting grass had been tracks, too many to count and like nothing he had seen before. After a glance at the skyline he had followed.
All of which had led to him to where he was now, cresting the hill underneath the first stars. Dark against the sky stretched an oak tree, its fingers twitching in the wind. The ground at the top of the hill was mud, churned and pocked. Tracks pitted the ground, converging on the oak before disappearing underneath its half-buried roots. Picking his way across the torn ground, Travis stopped upon seeing what looked like a roughly-hewn door in the base of the huge tree.
Travis stood at the door for a long time, half-expecting to wake up. A skeeter buzzed at his neck and he slapped it bloodily. It hurt. No dream. He knocked on the door. From inside the tree, the sound of claws approached.
‘Travis,’ said the alligator, opening the door and motioning the hunter in. ‘Great you could make it. Wasn’t sure if you’d agree to attend.’
‘Yes,’ said the reptile with a shrug. ‘Bit conspicuous, isn’t it? We didn’t think we’d be this popular. Or should I say unpopular! Eh?’
The alligator flashed a grin and pointed down the hallway. Sending back a nervous and somewhat less impressive smile, Travis allowed himself to be ushered into the tree. It seemed only polite.
Travis walked down a panelled hallway as though floating. The reptile’s voice came from behind him.
‘There’s red or white wine in the dining room. If you’re driving or flying like our bat friends here tonight there’s tea and coffee in the kitchen. I must admit we’re very excited to hear what you have to say…’
‘To have a real human here,’ continued the alligator. ‘We’re a put-upon bunch, certainly, but none of us can match the level of ostracization you face…’
‘I think there’s been a mistake. I…’
Travis gasped as the corridor opened out into a circular lounge. The room was lit by torches from the earthen walls and underneath the lights the floor writhed with life. Draped over a chaise longue was a full-grown grizzly, the settee bowing under her weight. By the wall furthest from Travis was a family of wolves, the pups gambolling over their parents and nipping each other’s ears. Rats chittered across the wooden beams above them, stopping briefly to rub their paws together in the warmth of the torches before scrabbling away once more. Slung over the back of a chesterfield chair was a rattlesnake, rattles swinging languidly underneath him. Travis jumped as something brushed his leg. He looked down and saw a lynx sashaying past, paying him no more heed than if he were a shrub at the side of a trail.
‘Quite a sight, isn’t it?’ said the alligator, dipping his snout into a tumbler of bourbon before continuing. ‘Here you’ll find the unloved, the feared, the misunderstood. If it bites, stings, smells, or invades then it comes here every second Tuesday.’
‘What in God’s name is this place?’ said Travis as he watched bats play around the domed ceiling.
‘A sanctuary. Put any of these creatures on a crowded city street and there would be panic, mother’s throwing themselves over their children, police officers scrambling for their holsters.’
‘I can see why,’ laughed Travis weakly. ‘Why…what were you expecting from me tonight?’
‘To provide a human perspective,’ replied his host, craning his head around to look at the hallway leading up to the tree. ‘Still one more to arrive, I think.’
‘I’m not sure I’d have anything of value to say,’ said Travis, placing his shotgun against the wall in what he hoped was a surreptitious manner.
‘Nothing of value to say?’ said the alligator, turning to look at Travis down his long, knobbly snout. ‘Why, you’re more misunderstood than the rest of us put together. Wherever your kind tread, other creatures flee before giving you the chance to explain yourself. Your journey here tonight, innocuous and unassuming as it was, would have caused untold panic amongst the woodland animals, all of whom, ALL of whom, assigned you a sinister motive before coming within half a kilometre of you.’
‘I suppose it is a bit unfair.’
‘What I want to know,’ began the reptile before breaking off to speak to a bat. ‘Shirley, would you mind going up to the clearing to check on Boris. He’s not usually late and we’re conscious that everyone still needs to get home tonight…Sorry, Travis. What I want to know is how you adopt such an insouciant attitude with so much…so much hostility around you…Every animal in this room tonight has fled in the face of such…such ignorance. We…we accommodate these prejudices…I’m sorry, Travis, but you appear to have something on your neck. Have you cut yourself?’
A shovel-sized hand turned Travis’s head towards the light, revealing the slapped mosquito which the hunter had dispatched shortly before. The bat flitted back into the room.
‘No sign of Boris,’ she said. ‘He feeds at dusk but never after. It’s most unlike him.’
‘It is,’ agreed the alligator, turning the man’s face towards him once more but not releasing his grip. ‘Most unlike him.’
The room was suddenly quieter. Travis tried to turn his head to look around but the reptile’s claws dug into his cheeks. He could hear a low growl from a wolf and the sound of a chaise longue creaking.
‘You monster,’ said the alligator, his reptilian eyes reflecting light in the gloom as he brought Travis’s bloodied fingers above his head for the other animals to see. ‘You animal.’
***Thanks for reading, folks. Any comments gratefully received!***